Over the past two decades, Proactiv has become one of the world’s best-known acne brands, thanks in large part to its infomercial-style ads. Celebrities such as Britney Spears, Katy Perry and Justin Bieber discussed not just the brand’s three-step regimen, but how it helped them overcome the shame and insecurity they felt around their skin.
“A lot of my most insecure moments relate to my face and skin problems,” Perry told the camera in a 2011 Proactiv ad. “I wanted to just hide.”
In the decade-plus since that ad first aired, much has changed in the way both consumers and brands talk and think about skin. The latest generation of skin care companies targeting Gen-Z are using an opposite approach to nab shoppers; flooding social media with skin acceptance messaging and debuting products like colourful pimple patches to make acne feel fun.
“[Proactiv] might have been the first brand for strong marketing in acne, but they were catalysts for other brands to step in,” said Blake Newby, style and beauty editor at Essence. “These newer brands aren’t making shoppers feel ashamed.”
It’s this shift in skin care that’s likely at the root of Proactiv’s recent rebranding. Two months ago, parent group The Proactiv Company announced it would be changing its name to Alchemee. This year, the company is launching two new product lines, both without the Proactiv name and without the acne focus.
Instead, its new brands, Restorative Elements and In Defense of Skin, are meant to improve discolouration and chronic skin conditions like rosacea and eczema, respectively. Restorative Elements launches this month, while In Defense of Skin debuts later this fall.
Alchemee will still sell Proactiv, and Alchemee global general manager Shannon Pappas said the brand is dedicated to serving the acne skin care market. But the fact that the skin care juggernaut doesn’t want to solely lean on its big acne brand — or its name — anymore speaks to how shifts in the acne sector have prompted Proactiv to evolve beyond treating one specific ailment.
“Acne is not enough to drive incremental growth,” said David Schneiderman, a director with Alvarez & Marsal, a consumer retail group. “Most people eventually move out of acne. There’s also an evolution in wanting to build out a skin care regimen, so brands like Proactiv need to be launching into new categories to keep customer affinity.”
The Evolution of the Acne Category
Proactiv was founded in 1995 by dermatologists Katie Rodan and Kathy Fields. The duo, who later went on to also co-found multi-level marketing beauty business Rodan + Fields, launched Proactiv with the signature three-step regimen that remains the brand’s core product offering: a face wash, a toner and a treatment lotion.
At the time, Proactiv products were only available through a brand subscription — a less popular sales option than it is today — which boosted customer retention. With its celebrity-fronted infomercial-style ads, Proactiv courted both teenagers battling hormonal acne during puberty as well as adult consumers with post-adolescent acne. By 2015, Proactiv reportedly hit $1 billion in sales.
But by the time Proactiv arrived on Ulta shelves in 2016, it was hardly the only player in the acne market. Countless brands were incorporating key ingredients, such as benzoyl peroxide, sulfur and salicylic acid. New brands, like Drunk Elephant and The Ordinary, became hits. And Proactiv’s one-time distinguishing muscle — its big celebrity endorsements — grew weaker in the age of Instagram, when seemingly any brand could sponsor a Kardashian (or at the very least, a “Bachelor” contestant).
“We’ve really grown our assortment because acne has expanded,” said Penny Coy, vice president of merchandising at Ulta Beauty. “Now there’s tools, ingestibles, masks and more targeted solutions for all the different types of acne.”
Today, the acne category has grown not only in terms of revenue — global sales of acne products hit $2.8 billion in 2020, according to Euromonitor — but also the number of brands in it. Though Johnson & Johnson’s Neutrogena still largely rules the acne market, wealthier shoppers have been drawn to celebrity dermatologists’ prestige brands like Barbara Sturm and Howard Murad, said Coy.
Meanwhile, a new crop of Gen Z-centric brands like Starface, Squish Beauty, Kinship, and Bad Habit cater to young shoppers with bright colours, playful branding, and most importantly, empowering marketing.
“Acne used to be stigmatised, but now brands are making it sexy,” said Newby.
A Foot Forward for Acne Shoppers
The space Proactiv operates in has widened and evolved. Many new brands carry acne products, but also items that promise to address other skin care concerns.
Alchemee is following that same path. With its two new lines, Restorative Elements and In Defense of Skin, it’s hoping to target a wider range of beauty shoppers. Pappas said it was that motivation that led the company to roll them out as separate lines without the Proactiv name.
“Acne is a niche area within skin care and Proactiv is synonymous with that, which is somewhat of an advantage and somewhat of a disadvantage,” she said. “It’s about expanding and broadening.”
The two new brands could have some overlap with Proactiv users. Alchemee may use the Proactiv name in some marketing materials, she added. But predominantly, the company sees opportunity in treating other skin concerns.
“We know that after acne comes post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, but there’s also normal ageing, dealing with the sun, and all these pieces that cause discolouration,” she said.
Though Alchemee is expanding in some ways, it is still planning to use familiar tactics in marketing its newest brands. Restorative Elements and In Defense of Skin will be sold direct to consumer, and the company is in discussion with some retailers too. The new brands will use celebrity endorsements like Proactiv, but Pappas added the lines will also utilise testimony from real users on social media — another tried-and-true Proactiv tactic. Alchemee will also be marketing the brands as clinically proven and science-backed, which she said has helped Proactiv stand out. In many ways, Alchemee is betting on what’s made its beauty products successful in the past.
“The work in science and in the efforts we put behind developing a really strong good product and continuing to evolve those products, it will always outweigh just putting any brand out there,” Pappas said. “We have the right scientific background and the right expertise behind this to continue to evolve and develop this category.”
Experts say the brand’s move to expand its portfolio is necessary, given that acne shoppers today tend to buy non-acne products too.
“They might be looking for a targeted spot treatment, but then they’ll also buy a cleanser that’s not specific to acne,” said Coy. “Shoppers want a well-rounded assortment within the home that does different types of treatments.”